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Charles Dickens employs the two characters of Compeyson and Abel Magwitch to illustrate his motif of society as a type of prison itself. For Magwitch, a child of the streets, is from childhood condemned as he had to steal--"tramping, begging, thieving--and do whatever he could to survive. He tells Pip in Chapter 42 that he one day met Compeyson at Epsom Races, wearing "a watch and a chain and a ring and a breast pin and a handsome suit of clothes"--apparently, a gentleman. But, Compeyson tells him he is not one; instead, he asks what Magwitch can do, and he takes Magwitch on as "his man and pardner [sic]."
Here in this chapter, the suggestion of Cain and Abel cannot be missed with these two characters as poor Magwitch is used by Compeyson:
"All sorts of traps as Compeyson could set with his head, and let another man in for, was Compeyson's business. He'd not more heart than a iron file, he was as cold as death, and he had the head of the Devil....."
"I might a-took warning by Arthur, but I didn't. I begun wi'Compeyson, and a poor tool I was in his hands."
With these two characters, the main illustration of how the Victorian society locked people into roles of social class is revealed in Magwitch's tale of their being caught and tried. For, although Compeyson was the one who designed the crimes and Magwitch the mere accessory who did the leg work, when they were put on trial, Compeyson
"...Looked, wi' his curly hair and his black clothes and his white pocket handkercher, and what a common sort of a wretch I looked. When the prosecution opened, I noticed how heavy it all bore on me, and how light on him When the evidence was giv in the box, I noticed how it was always me that had come for'ard, and could be swore to, how it was always me that the money had been paid to, how it was always me that had seemed to work the thing and get the profit."
"And when the verdict come, warn't it Compeyson as was recommended to mercy on account of good character and bad company, ...and warn't it me as got never a word but guilty?"
Even in the time of Dickens, there was a justice for the rich and a justice for the poor; society had its ranks and levels, just as a prison. In addition to the illustration of Dickens's attitude toward Victorian society, the story of Magwitch and Compeyson also illustrates the theme of Appearances vs. Reality that runs throughout Great Expectations.
They are similar in many ways. First, they both have a connection to Havisham. One, Magwitch, doesn't realize his connection through Estella. The other, Compeyson, left Havisham at the altar. He is the man that has caused her demise and hatred for men. Both are cons in one way shape or form. Both found ways out of prison early.
Compeyson is smarter than Magwitch and he knew how to use a court trial to his advantage. A citation that proves this is:
"At last, me and Compeyson was both committed for felony - on a charge of putting stolen notes in circulation - and there was no other charges behind. Compeyson says to me, 'Separate defenses, no communication.'"
Compeyson used his boarding school education to set Magwitch up. If you read chapter 42, or even just a summary about it, you will learn that Magwitch was willing to be the muscle of an operation, and Compeyson was the brains... of all kind of operations. He swindled, foreged and stole, and let Magwitch take the blame for all of it.
The first time we are introduced to Compeyson is when Pip stumbles across him by accident in the marshes whilst looking for Magwitch to give him his food. What is interesting is that Pip only realises that he has not found Magwitch when he sees the prisoner's face:
And yet this man was dressed in coarse grey too, and had a great iron on his leg and was lame, and hoarse, and cold, and was everything that the other man was; except that he had not the same face, and had a flat, broad-brimmed, low-crowned felt hat on.
Of course, when Magwitch hears about Pip's discovery of "the young man" he resolves to hunt Compeyson down "like a bloodhound", which results in the episode in Chapter 5 when Magwitch gives up his own liberty to ensure that Compeyson is recaptured. This scene really goes to the heart of both characters, revealing them in their true colours. Consider Magwitch's motives for ensuring Compeyson is captured:
"Lookee here!" said my convict to the sergeant. "Single handed I got clear of the prison-ship; I made a dash and I done it. I could ha' got clear of these death-cold flats likewise - look at my leg: you won't find much iron on it- if I hadn't made discovery that he was here. Let him go free? Let him profit by the means as I found out? Let him make a tool of me afresh and again? Once more? No, no, no."
This passage hints at the nobility and gentility of Magwitch that is only fully displayed later on in the novel when he re-enters Pip's life, but it is clear that Magwitch, having been scapegoated by Compeyson in his trial, now will not suffer to think of Compeyson going free. Consider how Compeyson is presented - he gives Magwitch a "scornful smile" and tries to taunt him.
It is only later on when Magwitch returns to Britain that we understand the full relationship between him and Compeyson and how Compeyson used his position as a gentleman to commit crime and enrich himself, as well as using Magwitch for his own purposes. Of course, Compeyson is an excellent example of a gentleman who is not a gentle man, used by Dickens to show that Great Expectations are not all they are expected to be in the story. Magwitch, in spite of his working class roots and criminal background, shows himself to be far more of a gentleman than Compeyson ever actually did, in spite of his class and education.
In Ch.42, when Magwitch tells us his life story he narrates how he became an accomplice of the smooth talking, charming and stylish villain Compeyson:
"At Epsom races, a matter of over twenty years ago, I got acquainted wi' a man whose skull I'd crack wi' this poker, like the claw of a lobster, if I'd got it on this hob. His right name was Compeyson."
Abel Magwitch is an orphan who in order to keep himself from starving took to a life of crime from his boyhood days:
"Tramping, begging, thieving, working sometimes when I could - though that warn't as often as you may think, till you put the question whether you would ha' been over-ready to give me work yourselves - a bit of a poacher, a bit of a labourer, a bit of a waggoner, a bit of a haymaker, a bit of a hawker, a bit of most things that don't pay and lead to trouble."
Compeyson on the contrary was a well to do gentleman who had had a good public school education but who chose a life of crime voluntarily:
And what was Compeyson's business in which we was to go pardners? Compeyson's business was the swindling, handwriting forging, stolen bank-note passing, and such-like. All sorts of traps as Compeyson could set with his head, and keep his own legs out of and get the profits from and let another man in for, was Compeyson's business. He'd no more heart than a iron file, he was as cold as death, and he had the head of the Devil afore mentioned.
The irony being of course for every crime that Compeyson planned and executed using Magwitch as his accomplice, it was always Magwitch who was arrested by the police. Once, however, both of them were arrested and had to stand trial. However, the magistrate looking at the polished, elegant exterior of Compeyson gave him a lighter sentence remarking that it was Magwitch who had been a bad influence on Compeyson and had transformed him into a hardened criminal:
And when the verdict come, warn't it Compeyson as was recommended to mercy on account of good character and bad company, and giving up all the information he could agen me, and warn't it me as got never a word but Guilty? And when I says to Compeyson, 'Once out of this court, I'll smash that face of yourn!' ain't it Compeyson as prays the Judge to be protected, and gets two turnkeys stood betwixt us? And when we're sentenced, ain't it him as gets seven year, and me fourteen, and ain't it him as the Judge is sorry for, because he might a done so well, and ain't it me as the Judge perceives to be a old offender of wiolent passion, likely to come to worse?"
Through the character of Compeyson Dickens satirizes the unfair penal laws of his time and reveals how social circumstances convert poor orphans into hardened criminals.
Through the character of Compeyson Dickens pours his contempt on 'gentlemen' by stating that 'gentleman' is a synonym for 'liar' and 'villain,'
He's a gentleman, if you please, this villain.
"He's a liar born, and he'll die a liar. [Ch.5]
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